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Don't leaf feelings out of science

Many people blast the idea of genetic modification of plants. But how do the cabbage feel?

Swiss law mandates that scientists take plants' emotions into consideration as they design their research. This spring, the Swiss Parliament asked a panel of attorneys, philosophers, geneticists and theologians to establish the meaning of flora's dignity. The new rules, based on a constitutional amendment, are based on their findings, a 22-page treatise on "the moral consideration of plants for their own sake." It holds that vegetation has an inherent value and that it is immoral to arbitrarily harm plants by, for example, "decapitation of wildflowers at the roadside without rational reason."

The panel argued that genetic modification of plants could continue "as long as their independence, i.e., reproductive ability and adaptive ability, are ensured." In other words, genetically altering a plant to make it sterile is ethically — and, now legally — wrong. Curiously, these protections do not apply to snails and flies that are often used in labs. And, the humiliation of, say, strawberries as they are dipped into a steaming Swiss chocolate fondue, is off limits.

The new rules are latest addition to Swiss ethics laws. In the 1990s, the Swiss amended their constitution to defend the dignity of all creatures against unwanted consequences of genetic manipulation. The amendment became the Gene Technology Act. The act didn't specifically mention plants, so earlier this year, the government convened the panel to create rules for leafy creatures.

"Though we do take into consideration how to improve upon the quality of plants, the United States does not have a similar policy," said Dave Sacks, spokesman for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. "Apparently, there's more separating us from the Europeans than an ocean."

Swiss concern with sanctity and dignity is not limited to salad greens, or genetic research. Last month, they granted new rights to all "social animals." Wanna-be dog owners must complete a four-hour course on pet care before they can buy a dog. Fish can't be kept in aquariums that are transparent on all sides, as they need shelter. Goldfish must be anesthetized with special chemicals before they are flushed down the toilet.

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